Scales Tilting in Eastern Shore Race

Democratic candidate Frank Kratovil, left, and Republican candidate Andy Harris debated late last month at Salisbury University.
Democratic candidate Frank Kratovil, left, and Republican candidate Andy Harris debated late last month at Salisbury University. (By William Wan -- The Washington Post)
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By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008

If Maryland's 1st Congressional District race were a TV show, it would be a telenovela.

The drama began with a large cast for the February primary. Soon came catfights within the GOP, then a surprise ending in which the recurring character, a nine-term Republican congressman, was ousted.

But just as the dust was beginning to settle, the ousted congressman returned from his political grave with this shocker: He was endorsing the Democrat in the Nov. 4 election.

Now, what began as a long shot for Democrats last year has turned into the closest and most watched race in Maryland.

If Democrat Frank Kratovil, a Queen Anne's County state's attorney, wins, he will be the first member of his party to represent the district in 18 years.

If Republican Andy Harris, an anesthesiologist and state senator from Baltimore County, wins, it will also mean change, bringing a more conservative voice to a seat that for nine terms belonged to moderate Wayne T. Gilchrest.

Among the many factors that could influence the outcome is the divided regional loyalty in the district, which encompasses the entire Maryland portion of the Eastern Shore and reaches across the Chesapeake Bay to include portions of western shore counties, including Anne Arundel.

The district has more registered Democrats, but it almost always votes Republican in presidential and gubernatorial races. Add to that the turbulent dynamics of the presidential race and the economic crisis and it becomes one of the most unpredictable races in the country.

As a three-term state senator coming off a stunning upset of Gilchrest, Harris had much higher name recognition heading into the race than did Kratovil, especially in western counties. The district's conservative demographics also leaned his way, and for three straight quarters, Harris raised more money than did Kratovil. An internal poll released by Harris's campaign during the summer showed him 16 percentage points ahead.

Then came Gilchrest's surprise endorsement of Kratovil. A few weeks later, a Democrat-commissioned poll was showing Kratovil in a dead heat with Harris, and within days, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee began buying airtime for Kratovil TV ads.

Based largely on Gilchrest's endorsement, the Cook Political Report changed its assessment of the race from "likely Republican" to "leans Republican."

The DCCC has committed well more than $1 million to the race. Republican and conservative groups have not provided similar help to Harris.

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